A world where “the city talks back”

Taking part in a conference in Germany about megacities, sociologist Saskia Sassen makes an interesting comment linking technology and cities:

The effects of the digital revolution shape the urban space and the access of city dwellers to their environs. The focus here is on technologies that allow us, within and with the city, to communicate with buildings and objects. “The city talks back,” says the renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen, one of the most distinguished authors who has published on the sociology of urban development and shaped the term ‘global city’. Felix Petersen, who has recently triggered a trend with his opinion platform Amen, will get together with other innovators to discuss his visions of location-based services. A brief run-down of new technologies will be presented in the “Elevator Pitches” session. Raul Krauthausen provides a new kind of access to cities by way of his Wheelmap application.

I’m intrigued by the idea “the city talks back.” This could simply refer to material objects; city residents and visitors will be able to quickly see more about buildings and objects. For example, Google is working on developing maps of building interiors. Or perhaps all buildings will be equipped with Siri-like voices that can respond to basic questions. However, I wonder how much of this is really about creating another avenue for interacting with other humans in the city. Buildings don’t “talk” – even the artificial intelligence of today has to be programmed.

More broadly, this reminds me of Simmel’s early 1900s ideas about “the stranger” in the city and the general lack of intimate relationships. Through apps and new technologies, we may have more people to “talk to” or “interact with” but are these deep urban relationships or even helpful ones? Or is this just more clutter, another category of urban stimulation that leads to a more “blase” attitude (following up with Simmel)? I suspect Sassen is right that new technology will change how we see cities and the objects and people within them but I also suspect it will have a mix of positive and negative consequences.

Let’s just hope the city talks backs in forms other than advertisements…

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